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Ok. Let’s take a deep breathe before I begin my thesis. It has been a shocking week for all involved in Cuba/US relations. After witnessing a silver lining in the cloud of Cuba/US relations (2014 to 2016), the skies have grown dark once again with our current administration, who to be honest, has brought a dark cloud over several issues in US and abroad. Cuba is not exempt from the twisted narratives of the Trumpocalypse. I will remain hopeful for Cuba travel and keeping a close eye as events unfold. Let us begin.

6 reasons

Last year, it seemed that our Facebook feeds were filled with images of friends who finally made the leap to the elusive island. Maybe somewhere in your mind, you’ve been thinking “Dammit, I wish I could have gone during the good window”, when Obama and Raul Castro were shaking hands. We suspect somewhere inside, you’re also thinking, “but all this Trump ranting? Travel warning? Hurricane Irma? Well, maybe now is not the right time…”. STOP. Well, don’t cancel just yet.

Here are 6 reasons you should keep your plans to visit Cuba,
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(1) Because You Don’t Fall for Trump Propaganda

The past few days have seen a mass hysteria on the dangers of Cuba. First we begin with paying our respects to all those diplomats affected this mysterious case of “sonic attacks”. The symptoms are very real, and the health of a few has been compromised. The fact of the matter is that no US tourist has been affected. Many experts believe the travel warning placed upon Cuba was a premature move, considering that a drastic label of this nature is reserved for war-torn countries, such as Sudan and Afghanistan. Cuba remains to be one of the safest countries in the world. Please remember that this same administration attempted to pass two travel bans due to the “terrorism” of Muslims in the US, and the absurd pitch of putting up “the wall” to keep out the “murdering rapists” of Mexico. This is the same administration that is launching a red siren to the tune of “Cuba is dangerous” for all Americans. Most of it is attributed to political gains from a few buddies in Trumps circle (is this any different from his other agendas?). Please read between the lines. At the same time, we should pay close attention as investigations and new details reveal themselves, and not make any rushed decisions. Now is not the time to diminish our embassies. Now is the time to actually maintain them, and walk through this terrain carefully together. At least until we discover a little more on the case.

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(2) Because it is STILL Legal

This is one of the biggest questions I face from friends interested to visit. “Can I still travel to Cuba?”. The answer is YES. Trumps speech in Miami June 2017 confused many people with confrontational rhetoric, but the regulation changes were not that drastic. Under Obama days, OFAC had issued general licenses within the 12 categories of authorized travel for many travel-related transactions to, from, or within Cuba that previously required a specific license. The general license freed up travelers to self-certify their own travel purpose. It looks like Group People-to-People will remain protected while Individual People-to-People will be killed. The new announcement requires that you now “must be accompanied by an employee, consultant, or agent of the sponsoring organization, who will ensure that each traveler maintains a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities”. There’s a few other granular changes, but for questions on arranging your next trip, please email at jauretsi@gmail.com.

One of the biggest restrictions announced was that Americans will soon be forbidden from staying at Military-owned hotels in Cuba. The State Department will be publishing a list of entities with which direct transactions generally will not be permitted. Based on the July 25, 2017 OFAC update, “the announced changes do not take effect until the new regulations are issued”. This means that until OFAC releases the list of “no-go places”, that Americans are not beholden to this rule yet, providing they have a receipt, or email confirmation of the hotel reservation prior to the exact day that the new regulation is announced. When is this big day? Nobody knows because several positions in the new State Department is not hired yet. Personally speaking, I recommend the homestays at private B&B’s anyways which are a more of an authentic Cuban experience. So if this one new rule makes you jittery, just stick to home rentals, in which case you will be supporting a Cuban entrepreneur anyways… which brings me to my next point…

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(3) Because You’ll Help the Cuban People During a Tough Time

Although Havana was brushed by Irma, the big city bounced back very fast. Businesses are up and running, eager to receive visitors (as evidenced in this CET video). Cuba’s independent business owners, aka “cuentapropistas” are some of the most exciting places to visit, from home-run restaurants to creative bars tucked inside an old mansion, to private art studios. Mainstream media keeps posting various images of Havana drowning in ocean water (which of course were eye-catching images directly after the storm hit), but the truth of the matter is, the streets are now cleaned, Centro Havana is cleared, and the Malecon is re-opened. Visiting Cuba can mean helping an economy who needs a new kick, similar to New York City needing tourism post 9-11. Empower yourself with an enriching trip, and you will also empower a local Cuban with your dollars. Recent trip cancellations due to Irma fears have hurt many business-owners. I have personally seen the city of Havana bounce back fruitfully, and can concur, BUSINESS IS OPEN.

About the other cities east-side? Yes, admittedly, Irma wrecked tons of homes that are still trying to pick up the pieces. Consider it this way. Wouldn’t it be great to take a vacation, learn about Cuban history, engage in civil society, and *ALSO* help out a country recently affected by the storm? If you desire to visit Cuba for enjoyment, just fly directly into Havana, stay in “casa particulares” (aka B&B’s), and eat at Paladars (Home Restaurants). And if you wish to add a little hurricane relief to your trip, bring an extra suitcase of toiletries, supplies, or medicine. This is a good list to start with. Remember that Jetblue charges $35 for the second suitcase, and then $100 for the 3rd suitcase.  If you visit Cuba for a long weekend, perhaps just pack a bag of light sundresses, or thin dress shirts, which allows you to utilize suitcase number #2 or #3 as your “donations” suitcase. If you choose to bring a donations suitcase, please leave a comment below to activate pick up at your hotel or home rental upon arrival. I can deliver the stuff to the most affected cities during our relief mission October 25-30th. You see? Instant karma. And a fun trip. For the adventuring soul, if you prefer to roll up your sleeves to help first-hand, join me on this relief mission, and sign up at CubaOne, which The New Cuba is proud to partner with. Whichever level you decide, just know that if you choose the Havana experience only, that you will STILL be helping out a country in great need of American dollars (and global patronage too).

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(4) Because You are Curious about the History

Let’s think beyond the “trend” of Cuba for just a minute. Let’s discuss the lessons of history. This is where the Educational purpose in Cuba can be so enriching. Cuba can be a very fascinating place to visit whether you heavily agree or disagree with the current system. The history of Cuba is wildly complex, from Spain to Russia to US to Venezuela relations. It is a nation that has screamed for sovereignty for hundreds of years. There is much context to explore, deep historical perspective, various narratives, opposing viewpoints, and final decisions that have brought Cuba to the state it exists today. It is not something to be summarized in a quick blog post. To add to that point, since we carry so much influence with our nearby neighbor in the Caribbean, wouldn’t it be wiser to actually visit the island as American citizens? To gain knowledge as we vote for our leaders on this one topic. Visit for yourself, stay at Cubans houses, patron their businesses, ask lots of questions, and develop your own truth. The US holds a major key (not all the keys, but a major key) to affecting the future of this country stuck in its own narrative for various centuries.

Before you enter, read lots of objective books, then ask what the Revolution was all about, ask what it achieved, ask where it failed, but just ask. Learn what is fact. Learn what is propaganda. And learn the dangers of twisting these things around. This extends beyond Cuba travel, so I speak to the hungry globe-trotter, who can make educated conclusions of their own. We can all learn a thing or two about revolutions, the promises, the shortcomings, the things we wish for, and the societies we create for ourselves. Dig deep, and I promise you, Cuba will be an awakening experience that will shift your mindset.

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(5) Because Cuba is one of the Safest Countries

The American media has fallen into a fear-mongering spiral the last few days about Cuba. However, if you were to ask any tourist visiting the country right now, chances are they would all say they feel very safe walking the streets of Cuba, any time, any day.  If you don’t believe me, ask anyone who has recently returned. It is important to note that there is indeed American diplomats from the Cuban embassy whose health was affected, most likely from within their own residencies (with 1 incident in a hotel that a diplomat resided in temporarily). Nobody else from the hotel, not one person, has reported damages — adding more to the bizarre-ness of it all. These isolated incidents in Havana Diplomatic residencies do not warrant a nation-wide travel warning.

Investigations are ongoing, and experts are baffled on both sides. It is not logical that Cuba’s motive was to hurt Americans, when in facts, the last two years witnessed the warming of relations, and potential trade which the struggling economy needed. From a pragmatic level, the small nation of Cuba is sinking into economic crisis (no longer funded by Venezuela like a few years back), and was just beginning to reap rewards from the US normalization talks. More importantly, who benefits from this abrupt downsizing of embassies?

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(Cuban Lung Cancer Vaccine Could Come to the US)

Despite our difference in ideologies, both countries were beginning to exist in a space where we explored common concerns (environmental protection, drug trafficking, medical advances, etc) with agencies from both nations working together after 55 years of estrangement. Clearly, something shady is afoot and the theories are plenty (with a great new analysis in Washington Post)… but who is the culprit? Cuba denies any involvement. Tillerson wants fast answers. Frustration abounds. Fact-checking website Snopes.com recently wrote a report on the concept of a sonic weapon which further muddies matters. I am not claiming this is a conspiracy theory because real people were affected. I am simply stating that nobody fully understands the breadth of what these attacks truly are. Who, what, where, when, and how — it all seems to be on the table for investigation. To listen to a more level-headed perspective on the matter, travel expert Collin Laverty offered his thoughts to BBC this past week

This week alone, the US has expelled 60% of its diplomats from Cuba (understandably with the concern for their protection). Things went from bad to worse. Immediately, several Cuban diplomats from the Washington DC consular were kicked out of the US. Also, America has stopped issuing visas for Cubans on the island to visit America. Coupled with the already difficult reality that Raul Castro has hurt entrepreneur spirit by freezing “cuentapropista” licenses in August 2017, it is ultimately the Cuban dreamer who suffers the most in this treacherous ego battle between Cuba and US.

In the past, Cuba does indeed own some faults in the grand scheme of things, but I am ashamed as an American that our current US President has handled this fragile diplomatic moment like a “bull-in-a-china-shop”. Cuba is not full of killers out to get you. In fact, nobody even knows who the villains are yet. Just ponder on the ways that Trump has handled some foreign incidents and diplomacy, and I ask you to consider that maybe this new travel warning is a bit overblown. Time will reveal any impending dangers if they truly do exist (or not), and after weighing the facts based on evidence, then it would make sense to issue a travel warning (or not).

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The fact of the matter is (and I repeat)… that NO TOURISTS have been harmed, and Cuba remains one of the safest countries in the world to visit. I will even venture to say that as an American, I am shook at the recent shoot-outs ranging from Ft Lauderdale airport (Jan 2017) to the Vegas massacre this week, with 527 injured and 59 dead. I happen to frequent both cities, and the idea I could have walked into either gunfire is all too real for me, as most grieving Americans can relate to. The combination of easy access to guns mixed with how easily the mentally disturbed can purchase them is something I struggle with as an American citizen. Cuba has zero gun culture regarding residents owning arms. Gun ownership is a right reserved for the military only (which opens up another topic not related to this post). In essence, you will never read about a shoot-out in Cuba, or even the slightest “stick-up” moment with a tourist. Now tell me, which country seems safer right now?

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(6) Because of Recent Flight Deals

Now that we have addressed the safety standards, let’s move on to the pragmatic reasons to continue planning your trip to Cuba. Flight Deals. While Mr. Tillerson was issuing the Travel Warning, it was United Airlines who added another route to Cuba this week ($277 roundtrip). Jetblue and Alaska Airlines both have deals as low as $300-ish to Cuba from LA and New York. For those wishing to visit the Caribbean during high-season to avoid that freezing winter back home, take a look at flight deals from American brands who have remained supportive and loyal to the warming of relations. Think JetBlue, Alaska Airlines, United, and American Airlines. If you want to compare/contrast prices, Kayak is now offering this service as well. Contrary to all the scary stuff you’ve been reading the last 72 hours, American brands are remaining loyal to this budding relationship with Cuba, so don’t give up just yet. May we recommend Havana Film Festival or the Jazz Festival this December?

It is possible that when all this bad news dies down, the prices will eventually skyrocket back up on the day Americans can finally travel worry-free, but for those pioneers who pave the way to filling up these empty seats for now, you will be rewarded with hard-to-beat deals to the Caribbean. You’ll also be part of history by keeping this slow US heart beat alive and pumping towards a more stable, healthy renewal with the Cuban people.

That’s about it. For now. The news seems to be unfolding at lightning speed before our eyes. Nobody in the US/Cuba space believed it was possible to regress 10 years in literally less than 1 week. Until any further announcements are given by a very hasty US administration, book your trips now. The one trend we’ve noticed is that when US Gov alters the Cuba travel laws, usually any traveler who reserved a flight or hotel/home in advance of the announcement is “grandfathered” into the previous laws. And right now, it is *STILL* legal to visit Cuba. This may be your last window to experience a life-changing trip before the US draws in even darker clouds, and if we totally push Cuba away once again. Hoping for the best.

For now. Resist. Engage. Visit. Educate yourself. Stay Awake.

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(Illustration: Jasper Rietman for NY Times)

Tomorrow is January 20th. It’s official. Mr Trump will now be our President, and despite all the other issues to face internationally, this blog post is about one thing only — How “the Donald” will be handling Cuba/US relations and how you as an American can help shape policy and public sentiment.

On this first day at the Sundance Film Festival, we’d like to remind you to keep an eye on these films shot in Cuba. Mostly because they all exhibit a strong spirit of engagement, entering feet into the country to better understand the daily lives of our neighbors just 90 miles south.

What is the latest on the overall relations as we enter this new administration? Here’s the fat and skinny.

FROM THE US:
“All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order”, declares Trump, “which means the next president can reverse them, and that I will do so unless the Castro regime meets our demands.”

FROM CUBA:
“Aggression, pressure, conditions, impositions do not work with Cuba. This is not the way to attempt to have even a minimally civilized relationship with Cuba”, said Josefina Vidal, a foreign ministry department head (as told to the Guardian).

We realize this looks like a runaway train in a bad action movie. The train is going to drive off the cliff, right? Well, maybe not. That is, if you believe in “People Power”. Ok, so it didn’t work so well with the popular vote during elections (by over 3 million), but Americans DID gather in solidarity over the Dakota Access Pipeline. A coalition of climate activists  and native Americans managed to raise enough awareness which resulted in the rerouting of the pipeline away from Sioux Reservation. As an idealist, I believe it’s our duty to exercise this “people power” each and every day. Before I begin spelling out action points for this particular cause, allow me to explain the landscape briefly.

We have come a long way in the last 2 years under Obama’s normalization era. While the Obama Administration has eased certain travel and trade restrictions, only Congress can lift the embargo. We have seen what isolation tactics have accomplished in the past 55 years — zilch. Just a bitter relationship between both nations. We have already seen that a policy change from hostility to one of engagement has benefited the Cuban people more in the past two years than in the last 50 years combined.

Improving the daily lives and human rights of the Cuban people is a top priority of normalizing relations with Cuba. For the past 55 years, the only people who have been hurt by the embargo are the Cuban people, as well as US Companies. Isn’t Trump’s mandate to create more jobs in the US? Will Raul Castro and Trump be able to strike a new deal? Essentially, the embargo has failed. Logically speaking, no business in the world would continue a strategy that has failed for 55 years. It has ended up punishing the Cuban people and isolating us from the rest of the world, especially our other allies in Central and South America.

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(Obama meets with Raul in March 2016. Photo: Stephen Crowley/The New York Time)

Re-engagement is driving change on the island that is empowering the Cuban people.

Here’s a few main points to consider:

Cuba’s Private Sector:
Cuba’s private sector is the fastest growing industry in Cuba’s economy, estimated to have grown to about 1/3 of Cuba’s workforce. This boom in private sector employment is fueled by tourism – which would dramatically increase if we lift the embargo. The over 4,000 private restaurant owners, and 28,000 bed & breakfast owners, the growing number of taxi drivers, half a million private farmers, and millions more private sector employees in the tourism sector would benefit tremendously from lifting the embargo.

Increased Tourism benefits the Cuban People:
Increased travel to Cuba is fueling private sector growth that is empowering Cubans across the island. Cuba is becoming the number 1 tourist destination in the Caribbean. International tourism has skyrocketed, and with the reestablishment of commercial flights, experts expect a huge increase in American travel. The influx of American travel will come with certain expectations – expectations that cell phones will work, credit cards will work, access to internet won’t be severely limited – this will foster the kind of change that will not only benefit American travelers, but Cubans across the island. (p.s. As an American, you can travel to North Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia — but you can’t travel to Cuba as a tourist. Cuba is the only country in the world that the U.S. government prohibits tourist travel)

Access to Internet:
In this era of relaxed relations, recently, the price of internet has been reduced to $1.50 cucs p/hr, down from $2 cucs. The State is also launching some home internet connections in Havana Vieja, as well as wiring the entire Malecon street with wifi early next year (which requires a paid login with a Nauta card). Just a few weeks ago, Google signed a deal with Cuba’s ETECSA to install servers on Cuban soil for faster service. Although some of the internet expansion are purely internal decisions, it is however, a perfect climate to work with American brands such as Google or other digital entities seeking to improve connectivity on the island. This benefits all Cuban people.

International Credibility:
Year after year after year, every nation in the world, except the U.S. and Israel, votes at the United Nations General Assembly to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba. But even Israel trades with Cuba. Continuing 55 years of failed policy that has been repeatedly and publicly condemned by the international community as pointless and ineffective is weakening our stance abroad. Lifting the embargo would in fact strengthen our international credibility, not the other way around. Also, major international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam all publicly support lifting the embargo because they believe it makes it harder to improve human rights.

Polling:
75% of U.S. adults approve of the decision last year to re-establish U.S. relations with Cuba, while nearly as many (73%) favor ending the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, according to a new national survey by Pew Research Center conducted Dec. 1-5. Also, it is important to note that Florida did not go Trump because of the Cuban-American population. Trump’s Florida win was in fact due to votes from white voters in the I-4 corrider section of Florida. The Cuban-American vote was a non-factor. (read this thoroughly researched article on what happened in Florida). In fact, 63% of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade county support lifting the embargo, according to a FIU poll released Sep., 2016. In fact, Hillary actually out-performed Obama in Miami-Dade — a testament to how far Cuban-Americans have evolved in this area of discussion.

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(Cubans stand in support of the opening of the US Embassy in Cuba, 2016)

WHAT DO CUBANS WANT?

Mostly all Cubans I have spoken to on the island welcome the reconciliation efforts made by President Obama. After half a century of butting heads, both sides are fatigued from the hostility. It was evident when you saw the faces of joyful Cubans during Obama’s visit. A young journalist, Elaine Diaz Rodriguez (the editor-in-chief of a Havana-based independent news digital magazine, Periodismo de Barrio) expressed it bluntly yet eloquently when describing this new “frenemies” relationship between US and Cuba.

“There can be no true friendship between the governments of Cuba and the United States. They represent two opposing political systems and the first has long been denying the right of the second to exist and vice versa. The most we can expect is tolerance and respect. And that is exactly what we achieved, in a way, after December 17,2014 under Barack Obama’s administration”. She continues, “but people do not have to play by the same rules as governments. There has always been true friendship between the people of Cuba and the people of the US”.

The rest of how this story plays out will take time. We presume it will be a slow burning relationship that needs to be fostered and healed over the next few years, as we focus instead on the few things we DO have in common, as well as our general mutual interests.

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(Young Cubans enthusiastic to catch a glimpse of their first US President visit in 88 years when Obama strolled  through Havana Vieja, March 2016. Photo: © Carlos Barria / Reuters)

Elaine closes her letter to Trump with the affirmative answer: “Both leaders have spoken loudly: we want relationships, we want embassies, we want the negotiations to keep going, we want to reach an agreement in every area and we are open to dialogue. We people want to be close, not far. We want to build bridges, not walls”.

It’s safe to say that lots of Cubans feel as she does. And now for the next steps.

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GET INVOLVED

To affect real change as Americans, we need to mobilize our constituents around the US. If you’re an American and are in favor of bettering Cuba/US relations, here is a basic overview of how “people power’ can help push this forward.

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Contact your representative:
Constituents outreach has been incredibly helpful in gaining support from Republican members of Congress for lifting the embargo.  Here is a link with a sample script for folks to call Congressional offices, as well as a sample letter to send to Representatives. Although the majority of my readers are from LA, NY, MIAMI, I strongly encourage everyone to reach out to Republican members of Congress.

Contact the Administration:
While only Congress can lift the embargo, as you know, the Administration has a lot of latitude in terms of easing or tightening sanctions. Trump’s nominee for Treasury is Steve Mnuchin (read about the Hollywood movie financier). So to all my Hollywood friends and readers, if you have a connection to Mnuchin, reach out and urge him not to roll back changes. A lot of the regulatory changes have happened through the Dept. of Treasury.

Donate:
Here is a link to donate to the Engage Cuba Foundation. Engage Cuba is a national coalition of private business, organizations, and local leaders dedicated to advancing federal legislation to lift the embargo. Currently, there are three bipartisan bills that Engage Cuba is actively advocating for in Congress. Read more about their legislative priorities here. If you care about the embargo being dropped, this is the organization to support. Donations to the Engage Cuba Foundation (a 501(c)3 non-profit) are tax deductible.

Read:
1- Book: Open for Business, Building the New Cuban Economy to better understand the new private sector in Cuba, and the need to support Cuban entrepreneurs.
2- Newsletter: Go to EngageCuba.org and subscribe to their newsletter to stay in the loop on Cuba/US Affairs.

Go online and voice your opinion:
If you’re at Sundance this week and if these films resonate with you, post a social media message or write a blog post (if you’re not at the festival, spread the word anyways).

SAMPLE TWEET:

1- We ask Trump not to rollback regulations on Cuba. See #GiveMeFuture @Diplo @MajorLazer to see real engagement #LiftTheEmbargo @Engage_Cuba

2- It’s time to engage w/Cuba & show solidarity with the Cuban people #GiveMeFuture #LiftTheEmbargo @Engage_Cuba @majorlazer

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